Man on Wire tells the story of a quirky Frenchman more comfortable walking on a tightrope than on the ground. He claims that as a child he was “always climbing” — and not “his parents, his teachers, or the psychologists” could make him stop. Aptly-named impish Philippe Petit surrounds himself with a supportive bunch who roughhouse and tousle with him, who indulge his whims and fantasties.
Though directed by an American, the documentary takes the form of a quintessentially French film. We know up front that Petit pulled off “le coup,” and we know that he survived: He narrates much of the story. We’re left with the lovely bits and pieces of this tall tale.
Conceptualized place and time in this movie also seem categorically French. We start in Paris in the 60’s, where Petit evidently travels solely by unicycle, and no one so much as bats an eye as he scoots rambunctiously to the top of a street sign to cry out joyously over the crowded street below. In New York, Americans conform to a “cawfee”-drinking, practical-businessman archetype, while the French, like monkeys, remain young, carefree, queer.
Each narrator arrives on the scene as a talking head cloaked in mystery. They have silly, falsely-determinative titles like “The Australian.” Philippe’s groupies come at different times in his career, and they remain loyal not to Philippe, but to the heist.
This is, emphatically, a heist. Philippe has walked the wire before, at Notre Dame, and, in a breathtaking shot, above the Sydney harbor.
It requires some stretch of the imagination to accept this imp whose singlar obsession revolves around a tightrope suspended across space, but it is impossible not to be enchanted with his passion. Philippe is ridiculous in so many ways, tumbling on the grass with his ridiculous groupies equally enthralled with so breathtaking a goal. His obsession with walking on wires may be the most ridiculous of all, but this captivates all who encounter him.
As much as the documentary lends itself to a love story with Petit’s puerile-but-durable passion, it’s equally an affair with the World Trade Center. Petit walks across some of the most famous landmarks in the world. He becomes obsessed with the lure of the new twin towers erected in New York.
As the buildings near completion Petit and his groupies plan the heist. Dressed as workmen or suits (depending on the task) they travel up and down the towers to transport over one ton of equipment to the twin roofs. Many stairwell shots show the group running up or down the buildings’ stairwells to avoid detection by police or other officers. How bizarre that this loving tribute to America’s tallest twins includes a breathless dash through the staircase at the buildings’ inception, when we are all so aware of a parallel race at the end.
The WTC salute is tangential to the documentary but central to the story it is trying to tell. Everything about Philippe screams “French,” and yet his passion for conquering brand new, majestic buildings is so very American. He will accomplish nothing with his feat, and yet he must succeed. Philipe bears a burden of channeling some unique “magic” vein. If he does not inspire the masses, who will? Who will remind us that magic abounds, that life is beautiful and strange?
Philippe does, of course, succeed. There’s a scene where an America policeman sums up the entire ordeal: We couldn’t call it “walking”; he was dancing across the high wire,” reports the dazed policeman, “and…[Petit] turned to talk to his associate in French, bc he was a Frenchman.” The cop’s disdain is palpable.
Petit spends an hour “dancing” between the twin towers. To watch Petit dance, enjoying this moment suspended in space in a way that no person has ever been or will ever be again — it is exhilarating. Breathtaking to realize how close we are to death, a hare’s breath or a wire’s width away from that fatal step. Indeed Petit hints heavily, in that meaningful-yet-blase French way, that to die in the execution of this heist would be the most beautiful death, in pursuit of one’s passion. Petit’s childhood lover and amassed best friends fret heartily for his safety, but Petit is not concerned.
In the last scene we see the results of this unbridled lack of concern for convention. Petit has spent a lifetime thwarting death, achieved the height of his passion at some tender age in his mid-30’s, and watched his love and his groupies disperse upon the finale of his great heist. We all know what it means to love something fleeting peripheral to the person we think we love. This film portrays each character as something more than their humanity, because each sees himself as a part of something greater. Many of those involved in the initial heist shed one or more tears while narrating the movie. Few have the opportunity to work so hard for so unique a passion, and fewer still are fortunate enough to appreciate how unique their experience will be.
This film is incredible. Director James Marsh produces a kind of artistic turducken, with a heist wrapped inside a documentary stuffed into a commentary on the human condition. Indeed, we all toe some thin line; when we are light and full of joy we find that fate and the world assist, and when we have finished our heist and there is nothing left but to remain balanced on the upward draft of some suspended wire, we are alone.
Perhaps one more commentary on human condition is too banal to commit to ink. Then let there be sweeping scores of blue, and a performer dressed in black suspended in the clouds. Let him taunt the police and know that no one will ever follow his enormous coup. “What a beautiful thing,” Petit sighs, “to die in the pursuit of one’s passion.” Let the passion subsume the man, so only the passion remains.